Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Web Focus: Mobile E-Book Readers

Brian Kelly, UK Web Focus, writes about Mobile E-Book Readers in his regular column.

Over the past 30 years or so we have seen a wide range of computer devices. Those of us over 40 may have distant memories of paper tape and punch cards. Over time these were replaced by terminals, followed by VDUs. Although the VT100 terminal became a de facto standard developments still continued, especially in the area of graphical devices.

In the early 1980s personal computers came along. Within the UK the BBC microcomputer and various offerings from Sinclair had some degree of popularity. But it wasn't until the IBM PC compatible microcomputer came along that there was some stability in the marketplace.

There have been a number of devices which appear to have failed to gain acceptance in the marketplace. As well as various microcomputer systems these include X terminals and Network Computers (NCs).

Although the PC appears to be all-pervasive on the desktop, albeit with possible threats from Linux systems, alongside the Apple Macintosh in a niche market, there are a whole host of new devices which are beginning to appear. These include the WAP phone (and its i-mode competitor in Japan), digital TV, PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), kiosks and e-Book readers.

Lessons We Should Have Learnt

What lessons should we have learnt over the past 30 years of computer devices?

We should recognise that market leaders will not necessarily continue to dominate the marketplace: IBM's fall after its failure to spot the growth of the PC market is clear testimony to this.

We should be aware of the dangers of developing applications which are locked to a particular device: there will be many CBL (computer-based learning) applications which were developed for the BBC microcomputer which are no longer accessible. And we should not forget the BBC Domesday project which not only used the BBC microcomputer, but also used videodisk technology which is now obsolete.

There are also lessons to be learnt concerning security devices. As the PC grew in popularity, software vendors became concerned about pirating of software. One solution developed during the 1980s was the dongle - a hardware device which had to be physically connected to the PC in order for the software to work. However the dongle failed to gain acceptance due to its lack of scalability and the growth of networked applications, which could be used by any PC on the local area network.

The Web and Device- and Application-Independence

The Web was developed in order to provide device and application-independent access to resources through use of an open file format - HTML. In theory we should be able to use any Web browser on any device to access a Web resource.

During the 1990s the Web community experienced difficulties as Netscape and Microsoft competed with each other in developing browser-specific extensions. Although the browser wars are now over, we are still finding that vendors are developing proprietary file formats, which can be accessed through browser plugins.

Although vendors claim that their proprietary file formats are needed in order to introduce new functionality, the use of proprietary file formats as many dangers such as vendor lockin, vendor ownership of the format and its future development, application and device dependences, etc. An example of these dangers can be seen by looking at the GIF graphical format. This format, which is widely used on the Web, is based on a patented compression algorithm. After the ownership of the compression algorithm passed from CompuServe to Unisys, Unisys, imposed licensing conditions on use of GIF, requiring Web site owners pay them $5000 or more to use GIF graphics if the software originally used to create the GIFs was not covered by an appropriate Unisys license. [1].

What's Different Today?

We have seen some of the devices which have been used over the past 30 years or so and lessons that we should have learnt. So what is so different today?

We are living in an information-hungry society in which many people have access to large numbers of TV channels, for example.

We are living in a society in which networking is becoming pervasive. Access to the Internet is no longer restricted to the academic and research communities, but is now widely used in homes, schools and businesses. The growth in the numbers of mobile phone users and SMS messaging, and the usage of phones everywhere is another facet of the pervasiness of networking.

We are also living in a society in which we are becoming aware of the needs of people with disabilities and of the benefits that specialist devices may have in supporting the information needs of, for example, the visually or physically impaired.

Finally we are living in a society in which increasing numbers, especially amongst the young, are computer literate and have familiarity with a range of devices, such as PCs and games machines.

New Devices

These factors would appear to predict growth in the use of new devices, and in particular mobile devices. Although the WAP phone has failed to live up to its hype, we are seeing consumer use of devices such as PDAs, MP3 players and digital cameras. We are also seeing use of digital TV (such as ITVDigital - formerly OnDigital - in the UK) to provide interactive services.

So where does the e-book reader fit in with this scenario of pervasive networking and an information-hungry society?

The Mobile E-Book Reader

The e-Book reader has been designed as a mobile device suitable for reading text. Popular e-Book readers include the Rocket eBook and the Franklin E-Bookman.

Although the first generation of e-Book readers provided only dedicated e-Book functionality (creating bookmarks, adding annotations, etc) the current generation of PDAs and hand-held computer now appear to be using their e-Book reading capability as an important marketing feature.

We are also seeing the development of software and Web services to support the information browsing capabilities of PDAs and handheld computers: handheld computers have e-Book reading software bundled with the device and Web services such as AvantGo [2] allow Web pages to be transformed into a format suitable for viewing on PDAs.

Figure 1: Mobile E-Book Readers
Figure 1: Mobile E-Book Readers (Rocket eBook, Palm and Franklin E-Bookman)

We also appear to be seeing some convergence in mobile devices: mobile and WAP phones are beginning to provide calendaring functionality and PDAs can now play music in MP3 format.

E-Book Standards

In the first generation of e-Book readers each vendor developed its own proprietary format which its device would support. The end user community is now, however, reluctant to purchase devices when there is competition amongst the formats - consumers have learnt lessons from the VHS vs Betamax wars.

Fortunately the e-Book community appears to have accepted that the size of the market will grow if the community agrees on an open format for e-Books. The OpenEBooks format, an XML application, has been agreed [3].

What Is An E-Book?

Although there is an OpenEBooks format there is no clear agreement as to what an e-Book is. The term is sometimes used to refer to any book-like object which is available on the Web, often in PDF or MS Word format. The term is also used to refer to a book-like object which uses a proprietary file format. The term can also refer to book-like objects which can be read on an e-Book reader.

The inconsistent use of terminology may cause confusion within organisations - if a University department purchases an e-Book publishing tool it might expect the resources it produces using the tool to be accessible on an e-Book reader. Unfortunately this is not necessarily the case.

The University As A Publisher of E-Books

Within the UK many of the e-Books seminars which have been organised recently have been arranged by the Library community [4] [5] [6]. It would appear that policies on e-Books are regarded as being the responsibility of the Library. It terms of providing access to conventional textbooks in electronic format, making deals with publishers and intermediaries such as netLibrary [7] and Questia [8].

In addition to the role of the library in providing access to books, journals, etc. in both hard copy and electronic formats, the University is also likely to have a role in producing e-Book resources. As has been mentioned, we may see students purchasing mobile devices, perhaps for playing music or managing calendars. Students may also wish to exploit such devices to support their studies. If this happens, institutions should welcome this as the institutions will not be responsible for the purchase and maintenance costs of the devices.

Let us consider two possible scenarios for the use of e-Book readers.

Student Use: A student is in the Student Union bar on a Friday night. A friend tells him of some resources which will be useful in his assignment, which needs to be handed in on Monday. The student takes out his PDA and, using the wireless LAN within the Student Union building, accesses the resource and downloads it onto his PDA.

Research Use: A researcher is about to travel to a conference by train. Being aware of the unreliability of trains, she copies a key Web site onto her e-Book reader, and sends her time reading the pages while her train is delayed.

Approaches To Publishing

We have seen two possible scenarios for use of mobile e-Book readers within an educational context. Although e-Book resources from third parties would be needed in these scenarios (and access to such resources would probably be provided by the Library) we should also expect that institutions will wish to publish their own e-Book resources.

This does not seem unreasonable - as we have seen with the Web itself, although initially there was interest in finding resources on the Web, now most institutions will prioritise publishing its own resources, whether they be marketing, teaching and learning or research publications.

There are lessons to be learnt from our experiences with publishing for the Web. We have learnt the dangers of publishing for a dominant browser. Increasingly institutions are now looking to provide a single master digital source of information, from which other formats can be derived.

Tools are available for creating e-Book resources from, say an MS Word document. However adoption of this approach would probably cause a repeat of the problems encountered in using MS Word as a master source of Web documents: use of proprietary HTML extensions; a bottleneck in bulk conversion; reliance on structured use of MS Word style; etc.

Tools are available which enable richer e-Book resources to be created. However many of the tools in the marketplace simple create a proprietary file format.

The Need For Dialogue

As has been seen, the initial interest in e-Books has been from the Library community. Perhaps this is unsurprising: we should expect Libraries to have an interest in the "Book" aspect of e-Books. However there is also an "e-" component to e-Books which needs to be addressed.

There is a clear need for institutions to address the impact of mobile devices on their work practices. The mobile device which has both a communications and networking function and the ability to support information requirements could have a tremendous impact within an educational environment.

A danger we should be alerted to is the development of an e-Book strategy by the Library, though a deal with a e-Book vendor, which is incompatible with an e-Book strategy on publishing teaching and learning or research resources, which is itself incompatible with a deal through the University Computing Service with a preferred vendor of mobile products!

Within the UK the EBONI project [9] is working on the development of "a set of recommendations for publishing educational works on the Web which reflect the needs of academics and a diversifying population of students throughout the UK" [10]. They have recognised that "Arriving at a definition of 'electronic books' has emerged as an important preliminary goal for EBONI." [11]. However the EBONI project has limited its view on the e-Books they will be evaluating in recognition of the limited time it has available during its 18 month funding.


We have seen how different communities may have very different views of the role of the e-Book within an educational context. There is a need for a clear definition of the term. Of equal importance is the need for the various communities with an interest in the broad area of e-Books to establish dialogue. Finally there is a need for organisations wishing to publish e-Book resources to have a publishing strategy which supports the reuse of resources.


  1. Burn All GIFs,
  2. AvantGo,
  3. Open eBook Forum,
  4. Ebooks: What's In Them For Us?, Seminar organised by SCURL and SLAMIT, 7 June 2001
  5. E-Books 2001, 20th March 2001. Seminar organised by LITC and JISC
  6. An Introduction to eBooks and netLibrary, UC&R Welsh Section. 26 April 2001
  7. NetLibrary,
  8. Questia: An Online Library Of Books And Journals,
  9. EBONI, Electronic Books ONscreen Interface,
  10. CDLR Projects: EBONI,
  11. EBONI: Defining Electronic Books,

Author Details

Picture of Brian Kelly Brian Kelly
UK Web Focus
University of Bath

Email: b.kelly@ukoln.ac.uk

Brian Kelly is UK Web Focus. He works for UKOLN, which is based at the University of Bath.